Urban Planning and Public Participation in India: The Case of the Central Vista Redevelopment Project, New Delhi

by Shreya Pillai

Since a small advertisement appeared in the English language newspapers in October 2019, the architectural and urban community has been abuzz with the proposed redevelopment of the Central Vista in New Delhi. The advertisement was a call for architects and urban design firms to present their proposals for the redevelopment project. In January 2020, Hasmukh C Patel (HCP) Design, Planning and Management, a firm headed by Bimal Patel in Ahmedabad, was selected and awarded the project. At the same time, the country was up in arms about the Constitutional Amendment Act (CAA) proposals and then the COVID-19 virus hit, but the project has carried on.  This has since become a political issue with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress on either side of the project. So what is it about this project that has people complaining?

The Central Vista is an iconic part of Delhi — it has historic value (though it is a relic of the Raj — the Colonial Era of the British) and is an important part of the social fabric of the city. People from all walks of life use it as an escape from their cramped accommodation and the stifling heat of the city. For the average Delhiite, the lawns at Rajpath/ Central Vista have always been a wonderful place to relax and spend time with family.

It is possible that the government buildings along Central Vista (Rajpath) are in dire need of renovation (after all, some are over a century old) and the need for the redevelopment of the Central Vista is long overdue. However, it is the process in which the project has been handled that has been problematic. Starting with the call for architects, the selection of the architect, the funding of the project, to the lack of public consultation; it is the process that should be called into question.

This is not only about the Central Vista. It applies to multiple projects across the country over the last 50 years. While it is important to contest the Central Vista project, it is also critically important to question the structural framework that allows these projects to occur repeatedly, with little to no engagement of the local stakeholders and no public participation at all. The reality is that projects of this scale (both large and historical in nature) are being facilitated across the country, especially as the country has grown richer and more powerful. All of these projects occur within a very limited and opaque framework with a few companies, of a certain size, winning the tenders.

Some of the large projects in the last 30 years include the Sabarmati Redevelopment (2002), Varanasi Redevelopment Project (2019), Bhendi Bazaar Redevelopment (2012-ongoing), Ahmedabad and Indore BRTS, Redevelopment of Delhi for the Commonwealth Games (2008-2010), Redevelopment of Shahjahanabad (2007-ongoing), Tendersure in Bangalore (2011-ongoing). Very few of these projects have undergone any significant public consultation. Similarly, older projects like the development of Chandigarh (1949-60) as well as the redevelopment of the Telangana Secretariat redevelopment currently underway are examples of the opacity of the urban planning process. In such cases, people became aware of the project and start voicing their opinions only after significant loss of historic buildings and tree cover.

Contemporary urban planning dynamics are theoretically based on negotiation and contractual relations. It should be about the active involvement and empowerment of the community.  True empowerment of the community comes from community participation in the governance of the city or the urban agglomerate and this remains at the heart of effective and long-term strategic development. However, in India, ‘development’ appears to be about the delivery of goods to a passive community. Currently, a standard process is followed in large-scale urban infrastructure redevelopment projects. Due to a lack of ‘capacity’ or ‘expertise’ within the government (local, state and national), project statements and missions are usually ‘designed, developed and written’ by private parties, non-profit organisations or advocacy firms close to the political parties in power. While ostensibly designed by a political party, representative of the people of the state, other agencies and vested interests often take precedence in the process. The vision usually has to be ratified by the state legislature (if the cost exceeds a certain limit). This is not a complicated process as usually a legislature is dominated by a ruling party. Also, legislators understand that redevelopment projects mean large amounts of monies in contracts further down the line. Usually, redevelopment projects face little resistance in parliament and pass with little debate. Once passed, the path of a redevelopment project is usually smooth. Monies are allocated and the tendering process is facilitated. Typically, contractors known to the agencies involved in the ‘design and development’ of the project are shortlisted. Firms that bid also have to be of a certain financial size and have to have undertaken similar projects over the last few years. Typically, in India, most firms (with the exception of a handful) have little experience in large redevelopment projects and join hands with large international accountancy and development firms like PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Ernst & Young (EY) and Deloitte to bid for these projects. Most local architectural firms are too small to bid for projects of this size. And the tender documents are structured to eliminate any firms that are small.

With the changes in laws (i.e. Right  to  Fair  Compensation  and  Transparency  in Land  Acquisition,  Rehabilitation  and Resettlement Act or RFCTLARRA, 2013 and the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act (CAA), 1992), public consultation has been written in to the ‘development’ process. Unfortunately, this is still an academic exercise in most cases. Public consultation is typically facilitated once the project is already in progress. This is not the public consultation or communication process that engages with the people prior to and through the development process, genuinely soliciting their views and grievances. People are usually the last to know, typically once construction has started. The public consultation process, is therefore, in most cases, of only token value. The process ‘informs’ the public of the project, states how the project is in the interest of the public and provides the contact details of the local contractor in case of grievances. The contractor has little power in facilitating grievances and often out of frustration, people give up complaining and accept the inevitable. More and more, cases are filed against the project, thus creating a legal confrontation. Thus, this form of public consultation can be seen ‘confrontational’. This rarely ends in consensus building which is the apparent aim of the public consultation process. Occasionally, the ‘project’ becomes larger in the ‘public’ view and the media gets involved. If the issue is large enough (usually involving real estate), political parties also engage (as in the case of the ongoing development of the Peripheral Ring Road in Bangalore).

In the case of the Central Vista project, the media is providing a platform for intellectuals to present their cases against and for the project. The Congress has made a few statements against the project and the government was forced to facilitate a public consultation in March 2020. Unfortunately this was a token gesture. The architect had already been chosen, plans have already been drawn up, and the public consultation only allowed for comments on the design. The public consultation was facilitated with short notice and over a two day period, limited to a few people. Hence, it was of little significance.

A truly consultative process would have started well in advance of the redevelopment process, elicited discussion from all stakeholders on how the Central Vista should be redeveloped; facilitated a design competition for the potential redevelopment; conducted stakeholder meetings to understand needs and demands of the people of Delhi; created an open and level playing field for all firms to engage in the competition; shortlisted and chosen a firm based on the competition and then made it mandatory that the winning firm facilitate a public participatory and consultative process throughout the redevelopment process, so that the process is open and the design and development truly reflect the wishes of stakeholders.

While the Central Vista is of significant and iconic value to the city of Delhi, it largely comprises of government buildings. Few people actually live in the area and are not directly affected by the redevelopment. They are not a large enough voter base for any of the political parties to get truly agitated about. Most people have little time to engage with the question of how the redevelopment will change the nature of the city, of how access to the area will be destroyed for the common man and the environmental damage to the area. After all, similar arguments were made against the development work for the Commonwealth Games in 2010. And they were ignored by the Congress government of the time. Even the state government led by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) seems remarkably quiet on the issue. The government is biding its time, in the knowledge that the complaints against the project will die down with time.

The Central Vista Project highlights how broken the public participation process is in the country. If we want a truly participatory process, the central, state and local governments need to wake up. Devolution of power and finance to the local level, as mandated by the 74th CA, is critical. Only once power is devolved to the local urban government level will decisions about urban redevelopment be truly driven by community. The current top-down structure devalues the participatory process and creates an atmosphere for more redevelopment projects like the Central Vista project — projects that lack true public participation.

Shreya Pillai is a Bangalore-based urban planner.

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